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When Columbia, Md.-based poet Omari C. Daniel began exploring his art in high school, one piece had something to do with “rats eating a baby.” He sought shock value back then, and he thought poetry pretty much had to be fictional.
Later, a college professor’s advice came as a revelation: “‘You know, you can write about the truth,’” Daniel recalls her saying. So he mined a rich veinmemories of fishing in Pennsylvania with his father and their extended family and friends.
“One day, Omari sends me this book of poems”a collection called We Fish”and I’m flabbergasted,” remembers his father, Jack L. Daniel. In “First Steps,” Omari wrote about the rope his father tied around him as surety against the current when they fished a river:
Soon I was able to walk behind my father,
the rope would prod me along by
cutting into my sides
when it felt me falling too far behind.
I always hated the first step into the river.
“I never thought about that rope being an umbilical cord until I read that poem,” says Jack, 60. Inspired, he began responding to his son’s poems, writing his own memories.
It wasn’t easy. Jack, dean of students and vice provost for undergraduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh, had written mainly for scholarly publications. Omari, who now teaches high school in Montgomery County, prodded his father to wring more emotion from the narrator.
“I was like, ‘Look, the “Jack” character must react,’” recalls Omari, 31. “‘He is what people are going to latch on to.’” Eventually, Jack says, Omari was satisfied with the narrator’s openness and moved on to the next challenge: “He said, ‘You don’t have a story.’” His son handed him a diagram outlining characters and themes.
“Essentially, he gave me a writing course,” Jack says. “By the time I got through the book, it was no longer We Fish. It was We Write.”
We Fish: The Journey to Fatherhood, due March 23, weaves Jack’s narratives with Omari’s poetry. It reaches back to Jack’s boyhood summers in rural Virginia, where he used a bucket to catch creek minnows, and eventually settles at an old school bus refurbished by Jack’s Uncle William. The “Red Bus” slept seven and offered such amenities as cold running water and a bug-zapping light; permanently parked alongside Pennsylvania’s Juniata River, it drew Jack and his relativesincluding, eventually, his no-nonsense fatherto three decades of summer-weekend fishing trips.
The book describes the work, fun, and camaraderie at the Red Bus, from gutting a day’s catch to swapping stories to talking trash. It was an opportunity “for in-depth bonding…across three generations of African-American males,” Jack saysan opportunity many young African-American men never have. The friends Omari invited along often asked to come back, he noteseven though their mosquito bites usually outnumbered the fish they caught.
Though they’re excited to see We Fish in print, both Daniels now have new projects. Omari is seeking a publisher for Wrapped in Black, a collection of about 40 poems. Jack, with Omari’s editorial counsel, is developing characters to dramatize his feelings about the University of Pittsburghhis pride in the school’s successes and his concern that in the end he won’t have drawn more African-American students, faculty, and staff to it.
And yes, he’s tried following in his son’s footsteps, attempting poetry of his own though, he says, “I think what I’m doing is probably called ‘rhyming.’” Joe Dempsey